Public Release: 

Stem cells and cancer: Scientists investigate a fine balancing act

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

Speaking today at the UK National Stem Cell Network Annual Science Meeting in Edinburgh, Professor Silvia Marino shows how the mechanisms normally involved in balancing different functions of stem cells may also contribute to cancer. Her team from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry is currently delving into these mechanisms to understand how stem cells are normally regulated and what role they may play in malignant brain tumours. This work has been funded by Cancer Research UK, Oncosuisse, Barts and the London Charity, Ali's Dream and Charlie's Challenge.

Professor Marino said: "Stem cells are present in the adult brain where they normally play a role in repair and regeneration. We want to know whether brain cancer can originate from problems in the regulation of these cells. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that tumours maintain themselves with mechanisms similar to the ones used by stem cells. We want to understand whether differences can be identified between normal stem cells and cancer stem cells. If this is the case, new drugs can be developed to specifically kill the cells maintaining and propagating the tumour without harming normal stem cells."

In the body it is vital that a balance is struck between maintaining numbers of stem cells with making new stem cell derived tissues. This is important in embryonic development and also in preserving healthy adult tissues. If the balance is wrong then disease can arise. Cancer can result from stem cells dividing too much, leading to an excess of new cells. But if stem cells do not divide to replenish the stocks for renewal and repair then the result can be ageing and possibly degenerative diseases.

Professor Marino's group works to identify the mechanisms involved in maintaining this balance and assess whether similar mechanisms can possibly contribute to the formation and maintenance of malignant brain tumours. For example, research to date shows that a gene called Bmi1 is important for maintaining stocks of stem cells and without it the stocks of stem cells are depleted. And importantly this gene is overactive in various cancers including brain tumours.

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Notes to Editors

This research is being presented at the UK National Stem Cell Network Inaugural Science Meeting at the Edinburgh Conference Centre on 11 April 2008.

The conference is a showcase of the best and latest UK stem cell science across all stem cell disciplines.

The UK National Stem Cell Network acts as a network of the existing regional stem cell networks in the UK, to bring coordination and coherence to a range of national and regional activities in the field of stem cell research.

The UKNSCN secretariat receives financial support from four of the UK Research Councils:

  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)

The Network represents the UK stem cell research community and is run through an independent Steering Committee. Initially, the secretariat is operated by BBSRC on behalf of all the Government sponsors of stem cell research, including the Research Councils, the Department of Health and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit www.cancerresearchuk.org.

About Barts and The London Charity

Barts and The London Charity is the independent registered charity for the three world-renowned hospitals of Barts and The London NHS Trust. The Charity provides additional funds to support innovative projects with the aim of achieving excellence in healthcare for the local community and beyond.

For further information about Barts and The London Charity please call 0207 618 1717 or visit www.bartsandthelondon.nhs.uk/charity

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